From the vibrant capital of Belfast to the walled city of Derry and from pretty coastal villages to tranquil loughs (lakes) and woodlands, there is much to explore in Northern Ireland. So much, in fact, this small country is enjoying record numbers of visitors and has emerged as quite the hip destination for travelers who enjoy the pleasures of spectacular sea and mountain scenery, traditional music, pubs, theater, cultural events, golf, hiking, historical sites, bird-watching, good food, ruins and castles.
Beyond the many physical attractions of Northern Ireland, the remarkably friendly and welcoming people are often the most lauded charms. The countrymen welcome tourism and the economic regeneration it brings with open arms and genuine good will. Despite past decades of civil unrest known as ‘the Troubles,’ today Northern Ireland is very safe and secure with the second lowest crime rate in Europe. Travel Maestro tip: Do strike up a conversation with a local in a pub, although it’s wise to avoid discussions about emotionally sensitive subjects like politics and religion.
Northern Ireland Grand Circle Itinerary
Start your visit to Northern Ireland in the growing culture center of Belfast. The city center is compact and many areas are off limits to cars, so it’s a pleasant city to walk through. There are so many museums and sites to see, you’ll want to allow two or three days here. The Titanic Belfast is definitely a must-see – four floors with nine interactive galleries of special effect, dark rides, and full-scale reproductions of the ill-fated ship. Titanic Belfast is a 5-minute taxi ride from city center. Allow at least two hours, but you may want much more time there! Travel Maestro tip: The two top floors have a sensational view and are reserved for corporate events and weddings. The setting and service is exquisite with authentic replicas of Titanic chairs, table settings, etc.
Next, drive along the stunningly scenic northeastern coast from Larne to Bushmills on the Antrim coast road. Make a detour through some of the famous Nine Glens of Antrim or walk across the 80-foot high Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge if you’re brave enough.
When you reach Bushmills, tour the Old Bushmills Distillery, the oldest in the world, and have a free Irish whiskey. One of the most beguiling spots along the coast is the phenomenal Giant’s Causeway. The legend of its origin is more captivating than the scientific explanation of this unique coastal formation, but you can believe what you like.
Londonderry, as the Protestants call the city, also known as Derry by the Catholics, is a seaport on the northwest of Northern Ireland, yet only 65 miles from Belfast. It was originally founded in AD 546 and the old city is completely enclosed by 400 year old, 20-foot high walls. You can walk all the way around atop the ramparts in about 75 minutes, reading the historical panels. The four original city gates of medieval Londonderry still stand in welcome, as well. Other sights include the Gothic St. Columb Cathedral and the Guildhall with beautiful stained-glass windows lining the staircase. Travel Maestro tip: One of the best ways to see the city is on a guided tour. The Tourist Information Centre at 8 Bishop St. offers an excellent one.
Last year Derry hosted over 250 major festivals and Lonely Planet deemed it the fourth best city to visit in the world (behind San Francisco, Amsterdam and Dubai)! There are MANY things to do: whiskey tasting, Irish coffee master classes, Irish stew cooking classes, storytelling, genealogy, WWII tour & afternoon tea at Beech Hill, poetry & literary tours. They like to say your experience will be “LegenDerry!”
About an hour south of Derry, is the “Hidden Gem of Northern Ireland,” the Fermanagh Lakelands which are dominated by the 50-mile long Lough Erne. A popular way to explore the picturesque area is by two-hour public water bus tours or rent your own cruiser. This area is also where you can tour the world famous Belleek Pottery factory and showrooms.
The last must-see stop on your circumnavigation of Northern Ireland is Downpatrick. This is a small town 40 minutes south of Belfast where St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland is buried. The St. Patrick Center, the only permanent exhibit dedicated to St. Patrick in the world, is one of the most popular destinations in Ireland. Also of interest, the Down Cathedral was built in 1183 and features massive stained glass windows and a renowned organ case.
It would be remiss not to mention golf opportunities in Northern Ireland. To give you an idea of golf’s relative importance, there are around 100 courses in this small country of less than 2 million people! Two of note have Royal pedigrees: the Royal County Down in Newcastle – ranked #3 in the world – with undulating fairways, breathtaking scenery and challenging winds; and the Royal Portrush in Dunluce – ranked #15 in the world – with a dramatic seaside setting, towering sand dunes, and intimidating hazards.
You can make this Grand Circle of Northern Ireland in one week, but two weeks is really optimal. There are so many other castles, sights and interesting areas that the trip could easily be extended for another week to drive around the interior or spend time fishing or playing golf. To arrange your Northern Ireland discovery, contact the Vacation Specialists at Covington Travel.
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